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Violence and malaise mar Greek universities

Inability to prevent political violence on campus highlights the troubled state of Greece's universities.

Last updated: 08 Jun 2014 14:53
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University reform continually ranks as a top political issue in Greece [AFP]

Athens, Greece - Shortly after 10pm on April 2, about a dozen unidentified people walked onto the campus of the University of Macedonia, wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying short crowbars, searching for students from the conservative youth movement, who had earlier argued with a left-wing student over where to place campaign posters ahead of student elections. They found them barricaded in a store room.

"A female voice said 'they're in here'," says Yiorgos, a second-year business student, who was in the room. "One of them kicked the door open and the five of us boys heaved against it to keep it shut." The attackers swung a bronze fire hose nozzle like a ball-and-chain to smash through four layers of drywall, and eventually broke into the room.

"They were shouting 'we will kill you, we will slaughter you, you're finished'," says Antonis, another of the besieged students. "They hit us with crowbars and stockings filled with batteries, which they swung around like lassos."

The attackers remained on campus for about 45 minutes. Yiorgos suffered a broken finger as he protected his head from the blow of a crowbar. Antonis suffered a fractured skull. A third student needed stitches to the back of his head and a fourth suffered a broken nose. The police did not intervene, a fact that lingers in the victims' minds.

Before the attack started, the conservative youth office on campus called the authorities. "They said they couldn't enter the campus without an order from the chancellor," says Antonis. "We then called the chancellor but he was in Scotland on a business trip. We then called the deputy chancellor and he called the authorities. By the time the police got here, the perpetrators had gone."

Police refused to comment on the incident pending the result of an official investigation.

Greek higher education campuses used to enjoy a legal status known as asylum. Police could only enter universities following a joint invitation by the university chancellor, the head of administrative staff and the elected head of the student body. In practice, however, securing such invitations proved extremely difficult because student representatives, as a rule, boycotted the vote.

The rules changed about three years ago because campuses became a haven for petty criminals, drug addicts and undocumented migrants. Yet police are still reluctant to enter because their presence is deemed politically unseemly. Universities are still seen as society's counterweight to authoritarianism, so the law is not always applied.

The people who take [violent] action belong to the extreme, non-parliamentary left.

- Sakis Ioannidis, conservative youth leader

The roots of sacrosanct status

The view of universities as sanctuaries from regular civil law enforcement goes back to 1973, when a military dictatorship brutally suppressed an uprising at Athens Polytechnic with tanks and armed police. Students had merely claimed the right to elect representatives to university bodies, but this rattled the regime. Partly thanks to the student movement, the following year saw the fall of the dictatorship and a revival of democracy.

Like much of Europe, Greece lurched politically to the left in the early 1980s. The Polytechnic generation came to power with the Socialist Party's victory in the 1981 elections. It swiftly established asylum as part of an education law that introduced the election of university chancellors by the student body - a level of democracy unheard of in most university systems.

"Instead of freedom we administered - or didn't administer - our licentiousness, the tendency of most Greeks to feel free of the constraints of the law," says Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of political history at Athens University.  

Violence is usually political, and peaks at student elections or in the run-up to chancellorship elections. "The people who take [violent] action belong to the extreme, non-parliamentary left," says Sakis Ioannidis, the head of the conservative youth movement, ONNED. He believes that such a mix of people attacked the movement's students at the University of Macedonia, where victims heard their attackers shout "long live anarchy!"

ONNED has since asked for the creation of a dedicated campus police force that aims to act preventively and liaise with police.

Broader reform stymied

Such a force might stem the opportunity for violence but not the desire for it, believes Spyros Amourgis, a professor of architecture at California State University and the Athens School of Fine Arts.

"Violence occurs when there is no [student] satisfaction and no student culture," he says. "Most of our students don't study what interests them, but what will bring them money."

Amourgis decries the utilitarian Greek attitude to education. "Our universities don't develop personality. For the most part they are injections of knowledge," he says. "When you're interested in your studies, you care."

The anarchists' den in the basement of the Athens University of Economics and Business could exemplify the culture of disillusionment. A painted banner above it reads, "Welcome to the kingdom of the 'competent', where success is always written in euros". Beneath these words is a gun shooting somebody's brains out.

For over a decade, university reform has continually ranked as a top political issue. Greek universities score poorly in international rankings; until a few years ago, they were not externally evaluated and did not qualify for European funding. The democratic measures introduced in the 1980s - faculty appointments, chancellorship elections and even some student admissions - became tightly controlled by parties.

A first reform wave in 2005-7 introduced external evaluation and scaled back party influence in chancellorship elections. A second law in 2011 introduced university councils to manage finances and appointments in a more transparent manner.

The latter hasn't been properly implemented, says Vaso Kindi, a philosophy professor who sits on the newly formed council at Athens University. "The law calls for a separate legal entity that will take possession of all the university's assets, and which the Council selects a CEO to lead. The chancellors don't want this entity to be formed," says Kindi.

The result is that the university's revenue from properties sometimes remains uncollected. For instance, the Athens University Council found uncollected rents worth $2.4m, in some cases going back to 2000.

Athens University remains so opaque that the public administration inspector, a transparency watchdog, has asked the financial fraud squad to audit it. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras asked for the audits for all university discretionary accounts. "None of this has happened. No-one wants to disturb anything. That's the bottom line," says Kindi.

All of this affects fundraising. "Who is going to donate money to a university that operates in this fashion?" she asks.

Funding problems

The ability to attract private donations remains an important issue. Last year, Greek higher education received $1.3bn from the state, a 40 percent drop over two years. The government shut down two regional universities and eliminated some 400 departments. Universities could raid up to 40 percent of their endowments to top up operating costs.

Public education funding is now set to drop again by almost 25 percent over the next two years.

Even if transparency prevails and donations increase, many major reforms remain uncompleted, hurting the economy as a whole.

Greece is the only European Union member that still does not automatically recognise degrees earned in other member states, dishonouring its signature on the Bologna Accords. Re-qualifying in Greece can take years, and sends many of the brightest Greek graduates back overseas.

Greece is also the only EU member that doesn't recognise degrees issued by non-state colleges or by the franchisees of EU universities on Greek soil. Article 16 of the country's constitution preserves higher education as an exclusive object of the public sector, and forbids fees in public institutions.

The result is a public university system that shuns innovation and an atrophied private college system that is shedding jobs. McKinsey, the consulting firm, estimates that seven key sectors in Greece are missing out on $9.5bn, including potential education exports, because of the country's rigid laws.

[The government's] only goal is to destroy free, public education.

- Vasilis Vasilopoulos, IT student

Even many Greeks have stopped attending their own universities. Greeks make up the third-largest EU nationality in British universities after the Germans and French, but are the largest group by far in proportion to Greece's population.

Change looms, however. The last remaining chancellors elected under the old, party-dominated system are to be replaced this month, and Samaras announced on May 7 that he aims to introduce a constitutional amendment that recognises non-state university degrees.

Will this succeed? His deputy, socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos, is the man who torpedoed that very reform in 2007. Even if Samaras prevails, he needs bipartisan support, and the left is invested against reform.

Vasilis Vasilopoulos, a fourth-year IT student at the Athens University of Economics and Business, is loyal to the United Independent Left Movement, a non-parliamentary group. He succintly explains the left's view of university reform:

"[The government's] only goal is to destroy free, public education. They want a smaller university by reducing the number of enrollments and a less democratic university by autocratically controlling the administration." Samaras would appear to have his work cut out for him. 

Follow John Psaropoulos @TheNewAthenian

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Al Jazeera
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